I can make your life better!
That’s the claim that businesses like to make anyway. Advertisers and marketers would have us believe that their product or service exists purely to make us feel good about ourselves; it’ll make us happier, better than the next guy, increase our worth in some way. They tap into our, fears, desires and needs, or our senses of fun, self-worth, belonging, responsibility and compassion. I’m sure you have your own favourite slogan or campaign but the one thing they all have in common is their appeal to something intangible in our psyche. The advertising industry devises ever more sophisticated — and occasionally not so sophisticated — ways to try and get us to part with our hard earned cash. It’s usually a mix of persuasion, cajoling and pressure. Which, of course, they have to. If you think about it, how can we really know what a particular food product tastes like, how a car drives or scent smells just from a picture or a few words? We can’t, so we yield to the power of suggestion that the pizza will be delicious, the sports car will magically avoid all traffic and the perfume will make us irresistibly attractive.
Intangibility is one side of a paradox governing all economic activity. Business calls out to our feelings in order to get the very tangible result of a sale. So important is this process that over $180 billion was spent on advertising in 2015 in the USA alone. The better a company gets at appealing to its customers, the more sales are generated. Those sales are recorded and that forms the bedrock of determining how the company is fairing in the marketplace; all very real and measurable. As for us, the customer, each transaction is somwehat more transient. We make our choice, pay for it and move on. The seller hopes to extend the time we have those positive feelings so we return to make more purchases, but ultimately the act of buying something forms a very small part of our lives.
A more interesting question is that if business is so keen to engage with the market through intangible feelings — which it does very well in some cases — why does it fail so spectacularly when it tries to do the same with a group of people that make sure the business can operate? I’m talking about you and me again, albeit in a different guise. Not as a customer, but as an employee. Those of you that have worked for a company of any reasonable size will have probably encountered a mission statement, corporate values or ethos, or to put it more prosaically “the rules for working here”. In the role of employee we are anything but transient. We spend the better part of our waking days being expected to produce tangible, measurable output which in some often badly explained way contributes to the firm’s tangible, measurable output. And we are often persuaded, cajoled and pressurised into doing so through intangible messages, just like advertising but without the huge budget or promises of making us feel better.
It is precisely this lack of attention that leads to criticism of corporate values as being hypocritical, trite or meaningless. Employees are exhorted (or told) to “act responsibly…with integrity…create value…” Do any of us really go to work thinking: “I’m going to be deliberately irresponsible today”? So why write down a rule about it? It fosters cynicism in the workplace and can achieve the opposite of what it was trying to do, by causing workers to disengage with their employer and the aim of the business. Of course we are not all super-productive angels at work all of the time. There have to be checks and balances against nefarious activity but proscribing a set of rules as to how we should behave is unlikely to spur us on to create more of that tangible output business craves.
Given that we spend so much time at work, it is reasonable to suggest that while we are there we will experience different feelings and exhibit different behaviours during the course of the day. We should be allowed to do so freely. The smart company will create the right conditions to harness those behaviours that are productive. Employees need to have some idea of what their company is up to as otherwise they are likely to drift; many are motivated by goals or pressure. The way to do this is not by trying to fit everyone into a detailed framework (nor indeed trying to measure their performance against it) but expressing simply and clearly the culture of the business. Here’s the clever bit: don’t write it down but actually talk to your employees, and often. If your business operates in a dynamic fast-paced industry and you need your people to behave in the same way to ensure success, then tell them that. Not through coercion but my making it obvious that that is what needs to happen. Those that want to come along for the ride will do so — those that don’t, won’t.
Business approaches its customers and employees in the same way using language that is designed to connect with us on some form of emotional level. But there is a mismatch in the connection it is making in each case. The positive feelings it wants a customer to experience through its offering are not replicated by its intentions towards its employees even though the methods used are similar. If a little more thought and a little more effort was applied to connecting with employees— who after all spend far longer engaging with the company than customers do — rather than trotting out the same tired old corporate nonsense then who knows how productive, and happy, your company might be?